May 2014

This briefing aims to highlight the Indefinite National Service as a core issue of human rights violation where conscripts are recruited forcefully and kept indefinitely against their will often working in construction and agricultural projects under slave like conditions.


1. Background: Human Rights Violations in Eritrea 2

2. Introduction: Indefinite National Service Must Stop 3

3. Eritrea’s National Service: Indefinite Conscription and Forced Labour 4

4. Impacts of Eritrea’s national service 4

4.1 Impact on recruits 5

4.2 Implications for Eritrea 6

5 Conclusion 7

6 Recommendations 8

Briefing from the Stop National Service Slavery in Eritrea Campaign

(1) Background: Human Rights Violations in Eritrea

Since the mid-2000s nearly all reports on Eritrea have consistently reported that human rights conditions have deteriorated drastically. Nearly all basic human rights are violated and the indefinite military service, torture, arbitrary detention have made it impossible for many Eritreans to remain in their country.  Thousands of Eritreans flee the country each month, often taking unimaginable risks posed both by government policies as well as unscrupulous smugglers and traffickers capitalising from the atrocities in Eritrea.

With reputations only paralleled by North Korea, today’s Eritrea is a country with no constitution, no functioning legal system, no independent press or political system. No elections are held, dissent of any magnitude is not tolerated and power is concentrated in the hands of the president and his few enablers.

Those that are forced to leave the country often do so through increasingly dangerous routes. In mid-2012, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea concluded that “Bedouin traffickers...routinely hold their passengers captive and demand exorbitant ransoms from their families for their release—typically between $30,000 and $50,000. If ransom is not paid, hostages may find themselves brutally tortured or killed.” The Monitoring Group included five testimonies of Eritreans.

In October 2013, more than 360 Eritrean refugees drowned when a boat bringing them to Europe capsized near Lampedusa, Italy.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 305,000 Eritreans (more than 5 percent of the population) have fled during the past decade. Majority of those who leave Eritrea and hence a great majority of those who become victims of trafficking and dangerous exits are young people often fleeing the indefinite national service

In its resolution 20/20, the UN Human Rights Council expressed deep concern at the ongoing reports of grave violations of human rights in Eritrea, and decided to appoint a special rapporteur. The Council requested the Special Rapporteur to submit a report at its twenty-third session. It also called upon the Government of Eritrea to cooperate for the fulfilment of the mandate. However despite repeated requests, Eritrea denied the United Nation special rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, a visa.

In a 2013, in a report based on refugee interviews, she concluded that in Eritrea “basic tenets of the rule of law are not respected.” Following her report, the Council strongly condemned Eritrea’s “continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In February 2014 Eritrea’s second Universal Periodic Review on human rights was adopted and discussions highlighted the level of concern on a wide range of issues, including the indefinite national service that is causing the unprecedented levels of forced migration of Eritreans.

(2) Introduction: Indefinite National Service Must Stop

This briefing aims to highlight the Indefinite National Service as a core issue of human rights violation where conscripts are recruited forcefully and kept indefinitely against their will often working in construction and agricultural projects under slave like conditions.

The briefing is based on the experiences of many former recruits who fled the country after serving periods ranging from 2 to almost 20 years in the national service; many have left friends and family members who are still serving.

In video evidence, social media and face to face discussions, former recruited outlined the impact of the national service that forced them to leave the country by any means necessary. Men and women talked about:


  • The economic devastation caused by their period of service
  • The practice of illegal detention, torture and inhumane treatment entailed in the recruitment and maintenance of the indefinite national service
  • The psychological impact of forced recruitment and indefinite periods of service
  • The loss of employment and education opportunities
  • The health related impact of long term conscription


(3) Eritrea’s National Service: Indefinite Conscription and Forced Labour

In Eritrea conscription into the ‘national service’ is compulsory for all men and unmarried women between the ages of 18 and 50 .  Although the law limits national service to 18 months, since the border war with Ethiopia in 1998, demobilisation has generally not taken place, in the exceptional circumstances a conscript has been ‘demobilised’ it is through unofficial channels (often through personal contacts).

Since the final year of high school is only provided in the Military Service Training Centre (Sawa Military Camp), children as young as 16 can be recruited. During the roundups that target potential draft dodgers and absconders, children under the age of 18 have been caught up and inducted, trained and deployed for national service. Many recruits report to have been subjected to violence and ill-treatment for alleged ‘defiance’ or following a failed escape attempt. Although many women are ambivalent about reporting it, recruits say it is well known that many women are subjected to sexual violence from military commanders.

Given that recruits aren’t currently required for active military duties, much of their time is spent in what the government calls ‘developmental activities’ under a plan known as Warsay Yikealo Development Campaign. This involves mainly, hard labour in construction and agriculture, including working for construction companies owned by the ruling party and even individuals associated with the ruling party (PFDJ). The conscripts are paid $15 per month and have to pay for their food and subsistence out of that.

(4) Impacts of Eritrea’s national service

Inevitably the net effect of the current status of Eritrea’s national service has been detrimental to the recruits, their families and communities and ultimately to Eritrea. The unprecedented outflow of refugees and particularly the nature of the journeys has also had implications for the wider region and further afield, as the number of vulnerable refugees in need of support continues to spiral.

4.1 Impact on recruits

Psychological impact: The psychological impact of the current status of the national service is like a double edged sword devastating young people. On the one hand the national service is a cause of major stress and trauma at every stage: forced separation from family members, hard labour and military training under extreme conditions are all causes of potential trauma. Those who contemplate leaving and those caught over-staying their leaves are all punished severely (and often tortured).

On the other hand the systematic and indefinite nature of the ‘service’ has shattered the entire society’s resilience, making it impossible for young people to relay on their respective communities for support and healing.

Relationships are disrupted at all levels in the society (family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, relationships with spiritual leaders etc). As a result of these discontinuities young people are unable to draw from the social capital of their respective communities to overcome difficulties and remain resilient.

Recovering from the impacts of such devastation, both on the individual and collective levels is likely going to be a major challenge for Eritreans for a long time to come.

Economic impact: The Eritrean economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture with over 60% of its population relying on agricultural activities, for food and income. The indefinite national service takes the most productive members away from their families and villages and this plays a significant role on the rising levels of poverty in the country.

Much of the non agriculture based economy (construction, service industry, small scale industries and increasingly mining) is dominated by the government and the private sector is pushed out of the market both as a result of labour shortage (as the workforce is engaged otherwise in the national service) as well as the stiff competition from the government that benefits from an unrestricted supply of free labour. In many cases, it is diaspora based Eritreans that are sustaining families and even whole communities.

Loss of opportunities: for the majority of young Eritreans the most productive years are now spent serving the interminable national service working on projects and initiatives that they have no stake on. This means they lose on opportunities to develop careers, get trained for a trade or vocation and/or start families. By contrast Eritreans who leave the country, even to unhospitable refugee receiving countries, are able to send money to their families with visible positive impact for their families. Indeed many diaspora based Eritreans including those within the national service conscription age visit Eritrea during the summer months and the contrast in the life opportunity differences are starkly visible.

Torture and inhumane treatment: given the length and nature of the national service, patriotism and a sense of duty are no longer the factors maintaining it. The regime uses force and often brutal force, to capture young people and recruit them into the national service and then to keep them stationed in remote areas of the country away from their families with little or no break for years on end. Those who attempt to flee and are unsuccessful, are detained and severely punished often using methods that can only be described as torture. Many former recruits report to have fled the country following several episodes of beatings and maltreatments in the various detention facilities operated by the regiments. Sawa training centre, Kiloma training centre, Wia training centre have all got some of the country’s most notorious detention facilities. National service recruits are also said to be held in facilities at Dahlak Island. Many recruits die during those punishments or subsequently as a result of injuries sustained.

Health related problems: the nature of hard work recruits are required to engage in, often under harsh climates of the training facilities and areas of deployment, in the absence of basic provisions, often means many recruits become ill and those with pre-existing conditions are even more vulnerable to health deteriorations. The training and deployment areas are extremely poorly equipped to deal with the volume of need. Since one of the few ways of ‘official’ demobilisation is ill health, authorities tend to respond to requests for medical attention negatively; as a result many have died unnecessarily or contracted serious illnesses. Many flee to save their lives from such unnecessary death and illness.

4.2 Implications for Eritrea

Refugee crisis: Over 300,000 refugees have been registered by the UNHCR in the past decade, it is believed that many more slip through Ethiopia and Sudan without registration, putting the current estimate of Eritrean refugees close to a million in total. Given Eritrea’s population is estimated to be between 4 and 5 million the figures represent a rather large proportion of the population. While  refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan have sheltered a large number of women, children and elderly men, UNHCR figures show that  close to half of the refugees in recent years have been women and men under the age of 25 fleeing the  indefinite national service.

Unaccompanied refugee children: There are thousands of unaccompanied Eritrean children in refugee camps across the region. With little support and protection they are vulnerable and exposed to abuse, violence and exploitation. Children flee Eritrea for various reasons, but those interviewed often state that prominent amongst their reasons to leave the country was their fear of military conscription.

Level of militarisation: the level of militarization in Eritrea has gone beyond what is considered maximum level of militarization in any given situation. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), such maximum is believed to be 10% of a given total population. In Eritrea, accurate figures are not possible to obtain. But plausible estimations indicate that the level of militarization has already gone to more than 25% of the total population. In situations like this, a society ceases to function properly .

(5) Conclusion

Military service for public works constitutes compulsory or forced labour.  Eritrea, National Service recruits are not only forced to take part in public works, but also work for firms owned by the ruling party, and even for personal enrichment of senior army officers.

Article 25 of Forced Labour Convention 1930 (ratified by Eritrea in Feb 2000) states: ‘The illegal exaction of forced or compulsory labour shall be punishable as a penal offence and it shall be an obligation on any Member ratifying this Convention.’

The Convention is an indication of the international community’s determination to eradicate the ‘slavery-like practice’ of forced labour. These were reinforced by the General Conference of the ILO’s adoption of the Convention Concerning the Abolition of Forced Labour (AFLC 1957). AFLC stipulates that states that ratify the Convention are required to ‘ suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labour: (a) as a means of political coercion or education… (b) as a method of mobilizing and using labour for purposes of economic development; as a means of labour discipline’.

The ALFC, states compulsory military service, as one of the exemptions which otherwise would have fallen under the definition of forced or compulsory labour, however the service extracted   in virtue of compulsory military service should be of a purely military character and necessary for national defense.

Therefore the open-ended Warsay yikalo Development Project component of the National Service is forced labour and a form of modern slavery prohibited in both the above Conventions.

The border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia came to an end amidst much devastation fourteen years ago and although a peace deal was agreed, there are still tensions between the two countries. It is these tensions that the government of Eritrea often uses to justify the indefinite national service. However, the activities that national service recruits cannot be classed as defence activities essential for national security.

The national service is neither safeguarding national interest nor providing valuable experience and opportunities for the young people serving; to the contrary it has become detrimental to Eritrea and all Eritreans. The indefinite national service is a major cause of the Eritrean refugee crisis including human trafficking and hazardous crossings over the Mediterranean.

(6) Recommendations

Stop National Service Slavery campaign calls on:

The Government of Eritrea:


  1. To comply with the proclamation governing the national service and limits the period to the 18 months stipulated there.
  2. To comply with the ILO’s forced labour conventions (numbers 29 and 105), and the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. These provisions oblige all member states to promote core conventions, including the forced labour conventions, regardless of whether they have ratified them or not.
  3. To abide by the Universal Declaration for Human rights and stop the practice of forced labour and indefinite national service. Article 4 of the Declaration states: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
  4. To implement the recommendations made, calling Eritrea to stop the practice of forced and indefinite national service, during Eritrea’s first UPR in 2009.
  5. To accept the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Eritrea’s outstanding request for a visit to assess the situation in the country.


The UN


  1. To address Eritrea’s continued request for assistance with enforcing the provisions of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission’s ruling, by facilitating Ethiopia’s compliance with the ruling.
  2. To take serious measures against Eritrea for failing to comply with Article 4  of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as Article 25 of Forced Labour Convention.